Shortly after the presidential election, Oskar Eustis, one of New York’s most successful theater executives, knew what he wanted to do. He would direct a production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” with the title character a provocative but inexact stand-in for President Trump.
Mr. Eustis was not alone. All over the country, from Oklahoma to Oregon, theaters have been staging “Julius Caesar” this year as a way to chew over politics, power, democracy and authoritarianism at a moment when a populist leader with a fondness for executive power has moved into the White House.
Most of the productions take place without incident, but Mr. Eustis’s, which opened Monday night in New York, has been engulfed in controversy ever since a bootleg video of the assassination of Caesar, who is styled and performed to suggest Mr. Trump, began circulating on the internet last week and some who had seen the performance started to complain.
That prompted Mr. Eustis to devote his opening-night speech to a full-throated defense of the theater’s mission, which he urged audience members at the outdoor Delacorte Theater to record on their cellphones and share. “When we hold the mirror up to nature,” he said, “often what we reveal are disturbing, upsetting, provoking things. Thank God. That’s our job.”
A clash between Trump supporters and an iconic Manhattan arts institution over what kind of art is appropriate was perhaps inevitable in this hyperpartisan age. The proudly iconoclastic Public Theater is the birthplace of “Hair” (the Vietnam era antiwar musical) and “Hamilton” (the hip-hop musical celebrating immigrants). And Mr. Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, is an unabashedly left-leaning theatermaker who believes in the value of provocative art.
Defenders of the production, including some theater critics, describe the Public’s “Julius Caesar” as nuanced, complex and loyal to Shakespeare’s text — a cautionary tale about the costs of political violence.
But the production is also explicit and graphic, featuring a blond, Trump-like Caesar in a red tie, whose bloody stabbing is seen as offensive and inappropriate to some who have seen it. They, along with Breitbart News and Fox News, have driven a campaign on social media against the Public that has prompted two corporate sponsors — Delta Air Lines and Bank of America — to withdraw their support of the production, and a third, American Express, to distance itself.
“It was appalling,” Laura Sheaffer said in a radio interview. “Shocking.”
Ms. Sheaffer, a sales manager for Salem Media, a conservative-leaning media group, saw a performance on June 3. Three days later she described her dismay over the production in a conversation with the conservative radio host and comedian, Joe Piscopo, then voiced her concern again to the media and politics site Mediaite, declaring “I don’t love President Trump, but he’s the president. You can’t assassinate him on a stage.” Mediaite made the most of the story, posting it with the headline “Senators Stab Trump to Death in Central Park Performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.”
The reaction from the artistic community could not have been more different. “It’s an odd reading to say that it incites violence, because the meat of the tragedy of the play is the tragic repercussions of the assassination,” said Bill Rauch, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is presenting…
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